To walk into the current exhibition at the Globe Gallery in Newcastle is to feel the spirits lift. Art’s not all about colour but it’s the most immediately striking thing about Virginia Bodman’s paintings which, for the most part, are not the kind to want to lurk in corners.
Across the river in Gateshead, Daniel Buren’s exhibition had much the same effect but only when the sun was shining. The exhibition by the French artist, which has just finished, was all tinted glass and mirrors.
The Bodman exhibition, called Light/Dark/Dark/Light, generates its own colour through vivid paint. If you miss the Buren mood boost, the Bodman alternative is highly recommended – and it comes with a bonus.
Here, instead of a visceral rainbow effect, is a body of work with subjects.
In Virginia Bodman’s paintings you will see figures and groups of figures in costumes or contraptions that invite all sorts of different interpretations.
We’ll come to that. First, though, it’s worth mentioning that this exhibition and this gallery were clearly meant for each other – and that is another thing that makes a visit so worthwhile.
The Globe Gallery used to be a Co-op bank. The safes are still in place, though devoid of the banknotes they once contained.
An army of volunteers, working under the guidance of visionary gallery director Rashida Davison, has turned a disused building with cables hanging out of the walls into a stunning, white-walled showcase for the visual arts.
Wonders have been worked here on the tightest of budgets by an arts organisation that has been knocked back more than once for regular revenue funding.
Now it seems Rashida and her team might be on the move again, having previously colonised a former shoe shop in North Shields and a room above the World Headquarters nightclub in Newcastle’s Carliol Square.
It’s an age-old story. Artists move into a disused building until a more attractive proposal comes the owner’s way. Money, as the bosses of that old bank would have told you, talks.
If this exhibition is the Globe swansong, in this location at least, then it is a glorious symbol of what has been achieved and what might have been.
Virginia Bodman can’t disguise her joy at seeing her work displayed over three extensive floors. There are some big paintings here and they are by no means cramped together. It is, she muses, “a powerful thing”. With light streaming through the generous windows, the colours shimmer and shine.
It’s a far cry, says Virginia, from the confines of her studio.
Born in Wiltshire, Virginia Bodman has taught in the fine art department at Sunderland University for 24 years, actually catching the last of the institution’s polytechnic days.
“I have lots of ex-students,” she says.
Some of her current students are due for a guided tour after she has finished with me.
Virginia’s own student days were pretty fruitful. She graduated with a first class degree in painting from Birmingham Polytechnic and did an MA in painting at the Royal College of Art.
In 1983, having ventured to the North East, she was appointed artist-in-residence at Durham Cathedral, the first in a long and distinguished line.
There was a period, I suggest, when painting went out of fashion. Exhibitions were full of video installations.
“When I started painting seriously in the 1970s, what galleries were full of was large scale abstract paintings,” she says. “I was lucky because painting was king.
“But in actual fact, I don’t think painting has ever gone away.”
For Virginia it hasn’t. “I work on several paintings at a time and I like to use nice materials. I make up a lot of my own paints, buying them in powder form and mixing them with linseed oil. I also make my own stretchers and stretch my own canvases.”
This will come as a bonus for those who like the idea of an artist being a hands-on creator rather than a source of concepts.
As for the subject matter of these many paintings... well, phew! A guided tour throws a giddy assortment into the mix, from high fashion to the paintings of Thomas Gainsborough via Olympic athletes and the Christian martyr St Margaret of Antioch as depicted in the paintings of Francisco de Zurbaran.
Some of the canvases Virginia refers to as “stream of consciousness paintings”. Others recall paintings from her student days, “especially these figures in a wheeled contraption”. She adds, though, that a wheelchair, post-London Paralympics, can suggest heroic status in a way that it never did before.
“What I’m going to say to the students today is there isn’t a fixed way of looking at the paintings,” she says.
“For instance, when you talk about the use of the veil, this is something that is used in society in so many different ways, for religious, social or political reasons or just as an item of fashion.”
Comfortingly for the casual viewer, Virginia insists that the precise meaning of any particular painting doesn’t really matter. It can be left to the eye of the beholder, alighting on shapes and colours that trigger any number of personal responses.
The exhibition runs at Globe Gallery, 53-57 Blandford Square, Newcastle, until the end of the month. And while you’re there, go round the back to see Altered Space 6: Bank, a witty installation by German artist Peter Behrbohm resembling a cash machine but with a fishy surprise for the viewer. Details: www.globegallery.org